Commonplacing: Curiosity and the Desire for Knowledge (Ourselves)

Commonplacing: Curiosity and the Desire for Knowledge (from Charlotte Mason's "Ourselves") -

It is very helpful to read with a commonplace book or reading-diary, in which to put down any striking thought in your author, or your own impression of the work, or of any part of it; but not summaries of facts. Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer; besides, we never forget the book that we have made extracts from, and of which we have taken the trouble to write a short review.

Charlotte Mason – Formation of Character, p. 260

Two years ago when I was first diving into Charlotte Mason’s original series with my book club beginning with Ourselves, I started writing posts focusing on some of the quotes that stood out to me and adding my thoughts on them. Little did I know that I was already diving into the world of “commonplacing.” I stopped writing those posts as I just ran out of the time when I started doing the picture study aids. Recently, however, I’ve gotten more into the habit of keeping a real, physical commonplace journal and I decided I want to revisit this practice on my blog, at least to a smaller extent and, if nothing else, add some variety to the endless cycle of picture study aid/junior ranger/system status posts!

These posts will not necessarily follow the same format as the other ones did. I plan to focus only on a single or just a few passages rather than listing every single quote I found to be thought-provoking. Though, who knows with my wordiness…I may get to all of them. 🙂

In my last System Status post, I wrote about how I had started attempting to do a “quiet time” every morning where I read the daily page from The Cloud of Witness, as well as the daily Bible readings from the BCP. As I got further into this quiet time, though, I decided I wanted to add something else that also helped me grow and per a friend’s recommendation, I pulled Ourselves out again. When I read it with my book club, I joined them mid-year so I missed the first part of the book and I decided that was as good a place as any to start. That is also where today’s passage comes from.

The Desire of Knowledge.––I have left till last the Desire which truly is to the Mind as Hunger is to the Body, that is, the Desire of Knowledge. Everybody wants to know, but some people wish to know things worthy, and others, things unworthy. The Desire of unworthy knowledge is commonly called Curiosity. ‘Where did you buy it?’ ‘How much did it cost?’ ‘What did she say?’ ‘Who was there?’ ‘Why are they not on good terms?’ and so on, are the sort of questions that Curiosity asks. It seems harmless enough to satisfy oneself with scraps of news about this notable person and the other, a murderer or a millionaire, a statesman or a soldier, a great lady or a dancing-girl––Curiosity is agape for news about any or all of them. Curiosity is eager, too, to know and to tell the latest news about wireless telegraphy, motor cars, and what not. The real, and not spurious, Desire for knowledge would lead a person from the marvels of wireless telegraphy to some serious study of electricity; but Curiosity is satisfied to know something about a matter, and not really to know it.

Curiosity and the Desire of Knowledge.––Just as sweets and tarts satisfy Hunger, while they do very little to sustain life, so Curiosity satisfies the mind with the tit-bits it gathers, and the person who allows himself to be curious has no Desire for real knowledge. This is a pitiable misfortune, because every human being has a natural Desire to explore those realms open to intellect of which I have already spoken. Upon the knowledge of these great matters––History, Literature, Nature, Science, Art––the Mind feeds and grows. It assimilates such knowledge as the body assimilates food, and the person becomes what is called magnanimous, that is, a person of great mind, wide interests, incapable of occupying himself much about petty, personal matters. What a pity to lose sight of such a possibility for the sake of miserable scraps of information about persons and things that have little connection with one another and little connection with ourselves!

Charlotte Mason – Ourselves, pp. 77-78 (emphasis mine)

I read these passages a few weeks ago and they have stuck with me ever since, bubbling up in my mind in various ways, applying themselves to different aspects of my life. Morning readings often have this effect on me, but not as strongly as these particular words did.

In the Charlotte Mason world, there is a large emphasis on a desire for knowledge, not only for our children, but also for ourselves. We consume living books and take in living ideas to better ourselves and widen our views of the world, allowing us to truly become the magnanimous person she describes above. And when we take in this knowledge, it is not just memorized facts and figures and dates, but real knowledge that becomes part of us. Something that leads us naturally to different subjects and topics as in her example of wireless telegraphy. We make this knowledge our own not because it’s required or anyone is expecting it of us or to impress others, but because it interests us and we want it to be part of ourselves.

Many blog posts and pages on the internet have been written on the topic of culturing ourselves as mothers as well as scholé and I think most Charlotte Mason mothers do at least attempt to include these practices in their own routines. We look for various ways to add culture or knowledge to our lives… reading books (three at a time!), visiting museums, experiencing fine art and music, firsthand if we’re able, going on nature walks, learning more about the natural world, etc. And in this way we grow ourselves and hopefully become closer to the people we hope to be.

There is certainly nothing wrong with any of this part and, in fact, this is yet another aspect of the Charlotte Mason philosophy that I truly love. The ideas that mothers are also born persons, that they should “learn to do for themselves what they do for their children,” as well as the concept that bettering ourselves is for the sake of our children and not something superfluous to motherhood, are not notions necessarily spoken of much in some other parts of the homeschooling world.

However, the desire of knowledge for its own sake was only half of what she discussed in this passage. The other part mentioned curiosity, which apparently is a bad thing?

I honestly never thought of curiosity as a bad thing before reading this passage. There’s actually a Mr. Rogers episode from 2000 in which King Friday bans curiosity in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and a few of the local citizens (as well as those from neighboring places) actually get a tad snarky (as snarky as it gets on that show, anyway) about it. Mr. Rogers adds his commentary outside of the Neighborhood visit about the concept of curiosity and how it’s GOOD to be curious! Keep your curiosity alive! And, admittedly, the disagreement between Ms. Mason and Mr. Rogers about the benefit of being curious is probably more semantics than anything else, but I thought this was a good example of how we generally think of it as a good thing.

Ms. Mason, though, offers us a different view and suggests that curiosity really only serves to “satisfy” our minds with the “tit-bits it gathers.” Meaning, a little information here, a little information there, but nothing of real depth. Nothing that we take in, make part of ourselves, and often, things that don’t serve to make us better people.

I thought this passage was especially pertinent in this day and age. I read a few years ago a blog post filled with tips on how to increase your blog readership! and draw people to your site! and make your posts more relevant and compelling! etc. etc. One of the tips was to keep your posts to just around 500 words and definitely no more because people nowadays don’t have the attention span or the time to read anything much longer than that. You also should keep your paragraphs short and add lots of pictures. And, of course, create really good Pinterest images with intriguing titles that make people want to read more.

Again, this is just advice and not necessarily a good or bad thing, but I think it’s very telling about where we are as a society. We need things summarized and flashy to hold our attention. We read a few paragraphs in a blog post or news article about a given topic that we may find interesting, and then, in some cases, develop opinions or consider ourselves experts on the topic because so-and-so wrote something about it and we read it. And because of the myriad choices we have of media intake, primarily from the internet but also from TV, there are so many topics on which we can become “experts!”

But are we really? When we read a little here and a little there and merely dip our toes in a topic mentioned “somewhere,” are we really desiring knowledge of that topic? Or are we just grasping at “tit-bits” and trying to make them into real knowledge? Are we sacrificing true and personal knowledge of a topic “for the sake of miserable scraps of information about persons and things that have little connection with one another and little connection with ourselves”?

And I think this concept extends to social media as well, not only in the articles and blog posts that are shared (and often the headlines are only read – case in point, this post was shared on the NPR Facebook page a few years ago and there were a lot more comments than likes) before an opinion is formed, but also in how we interact with people.

Back in 2014, the number of people on an average Facebook friends list was 338. I know many of these are probably not people we would necessarily call “friends,” but more acquaintances, work associates, high school/college friends or people along those lines. But still…that number is awfully high for an average person. I’ve heard so many people (myself included) defend their Facebook use as a means to keep in touch with friends as they wouldn’t otherwise and, again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But I think this medium of friendship maintenance also allows for a lot of “curious” friendships rather than “knowledge” friendships. We can scroll through a friend’s wall and see pictures of their latest vacation, their lunch, their smiles all around, without really knowing what’s truly going on in their lives. In their hearts. In their minds. What they’re struggling with. What they’re thankful for. And often, we don’t have a real desire to know. We’re content with the “scraps” we see as we scroll by and assume that offers a good summarization of the whole person. We’re “keeping in touch”…..but not really.

Obviously we can’t keep a true “knowledge” friendship with each and every person we meet in our lives or who we may have added to our friends list, but it does make me wonder sometimes what I might be missing by relying on a medium like Facebook to maintain a friendship with someone when, to be honest, there really isn’t much of a true friendship there at all.

None of this is a reprimand to anyone (myself included) or a demand that we should all get off Facebook right now! It’s more a pondering. I often speculate about what Ms. Mason’s view of the world in which we live now in comparison to her own would be, and I wonder what she would think about all this social media stuff. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Would she have a Facebook account with a huge friends list filled with former students and PNEU members? Would she post pictures of Ambleside or her latest nature journal entry on Instagram (confession: I really hope she would… 🙂 )?

I think this passage definitely deserves more pondering and could possibly even be used as a litmus test for my future internet reading.

(Sidenote: This post is nearly 2100 words long. If you made it to the end, I applaud you. 🙂 )

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  1. This is an excellent and very thought-provoking post, and I think your comparison of Facebook usage to what Ms. Mason was saying about curiosity vs. desire for knowledge is spot on. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. matt wahl says:

    I love this and I love Mr. Rogers too. The difference may lie in definitions. I think that curiosity is the spark and wonder is the bonfire, and it takes time and effort to fuel a fire. I do agree that we are too easily satisfied; check a box, fill in the blank or the bubble type schooling conditions us this way. Wonder can’t be satisfied, it must be fed. Not everything needs to be wondered at, but there are many things that contain good, true and beautiful ideas, those we stick with and keep feeding.

  3. I love this so much! I have noticed I use motherhood as an excuse not to dive deep into learning on my own time, because I learn enough through homeschooling,right? Not really… my children are so young, we can only do so much learning in a day before their eyes and hands begin to wander to other things. While I may want to devour 5 chapters of a book, they can only sit for 1. So I think it is important to make time for Knowledge. Also, the time thing… I am guilty of not watching video or reading a post because it was too lengthy. I wanted short and sweet and to the point. Your blog is incredible and I have been enjoying it throughly. Thank you for not giving into the latest trends of fast paced and short attention spans of this world.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Marisa! I am also guilty of not reading things (aside from books) if they’re too long because there is only so much time in the day! But I think it is important for us to show our children that learning doesn’t end when we’re doing with school and that we can find joy in continuing our own education!

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